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Esprit du Tour

Riders in the 100th Tour de France will set out from the Corsican town of Porto-Vecchio this month, launching not only a grueling three-week cycling race, but also a countrywide celebration of what it means to be French. Rachel Sturtz introduces us to some of the people who will take their place along the route.

Author Rachel Sturtz Photography Laura Stevens

Unofficial Tour de France historian Robert Drouault in his Avranches office

Unofficial Tour de France historian Robert Drouault in his Avranches office

ROBERT DROUAULT, A RETIRED TELECOM EMPLOYEE FROM AVRANCHES, an ancient Gallo-Roman town in northwest France, crosses his legs and looks up from the binder he’s rifling through. For decades now, the 74-year-old has served as unofficial race historian, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more passionate devotee. “I will talk about the Tour de France for 24 hours if you let me,” he says, only half kidding.

We’re sitting in the gleaming white Avranches tourism office on a dismal rainy evening. Spread out on the table before Drouault is a tiny fraction of his Tour memorabilia, artifacts he’s collected during his 66-year fascination with the race: paper hats and newspaper clippings, flags and autographs. His eyebrows soar as he talks, as if he’s surprising himself with each revelation.

This year Avranches will mark the beginning of the Tour’s 20-mile individual time trial, a vital Tour element in which each rider races against the clock. The route winds from Place Littré through 18th-century stone villages, past black-nosed sheep loitering in their fields and toward the rocky tidal island of Mont-Saint-Michel, home to a medieval abbey and some of the world’s most dangerous tides. The prospect of his hometown playing such an important role in the race has Drouault even more excited than usual.

For Drouault, the Tour is as big a part of France’s cultural heritage as its poets, painters and palaces. “Watch the race from the top of any mountain,” he says. “It’s the biggest circus in the world. It’s an incredible sight to see.” With this, Drouault produces from his stack another binder, within which is an encyclopedic list he has compiled of the names, times, finishes, birthdays and jersey numbers of every cyclist who has competed in the race since 1903.

Drouault saw his first race in 1947, when he was 9. It was the first Tour since the onset of World War II, in 1939, but the young Drouault had already been gripped by vintage photographs of cyclists buzzing through Avranches. “To see my village in photographs! I became fond of it for that reason,” he says. “I had to know why the Tour was created and learn everything about its history.” While he watched the race, his fascination blossomed into passion. “I began collecting,” he says, “and never stopped.”

A moment later, flipping through another binder, Drouault comes across one of the original L’Auto paper hats that were passed out to fans during the 1903 race. He promptly puts it on. Then, squinting behind the thick lenses of his glasses, he points to a faded signature belonging to Jacques Anquetil, the Frenchman who won the race five times between 1957 and 1964. For once, the historian does not follow his discovery with a detailed explanation, as if the thing itself is enough.

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